Gray’s Elegy

Coda by Simon Gray

Books Literature Theatre

At the start of this journal, Simon Gray is diagnosed as suffering from a tumour in his lung that will probably kill him within a year. This naturally lays him very low. Back at home he imagines his cancer to be a grinning man, now crouching in a dark corner, soon to be lunging forward with a knife, meanwhile turning his comfortable house into a cheerless prison.

He has similarly hostile visions about the various doctors who have the unpleasant tasks of breaking or confirming the bad news of his condition. One who looks like a ladies’ man, he gleefully imagines being struck off the medical register for interfering with his women patients while they are under anaesthetic. When he develops a neck tumour and the doctor tries to comfort him with exploratory results that show no sign of throat cancer, Gray takes a masochistic pleasure in forcing him to admit that this is not good but bad news. It means his more dangerous lung cancer is spreading. He dreams of shooting and stabbing another doctor who looks relieved when he has managed to give out a nervous estimate of Gray’s short lifespan from the side of his mouth.

This mood of angry railing at fate does not last long. Quite soon, Gray is wondering to himself how to commit suicide in the event of a really painful decline. It proves frustratingly difficult, partly because he is allergic to some drugs, but mainly because he wants to shield his wife, Victoria, from any legal risk of complicity. Besides, he does not seem to be the suicidal type, and by now he is in a practical frame of mind. He begins to make plans for what remains of his life, juggling social engagements, the work still to do, and a final vacation in Crete with Victoria.

Not until halfway through the journal does he consider what for many writers would be the first question on hearing the doctor’s verdict: what will posterity think of me? After some hesitation he makes a claim that is both modest and bold: “I think I’m better than my reputation. Possibly I’m the best playwright in English of the second half of the last century, well, at writing the sorts of plays I wanted to write…” Those plays were “in a sense, Chekhovian”, plays like Quartermaine’s Terms, Close of Play, The Common Pursuit, The Rear Column, The Late Middle Classes, Japes. These plays “leave audiences with the experience of having looked in on other lives, other conditions, and have them see much that’s the same and much that’s different from their own lives.”

Posterity will decide, of course, but Gray’s hopes do not seem over-ambitious. His career as a playwright looks likely to follow the same path as Terence Rattigan’s: great early success followed by solid achievement followed by critical disdain (born of political rather than literary reactions) ending in posthumous revival. This season’s fine production of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea may well foreshadow a resurrection of, say, Close of Play in another 20 years. Indeed, Gray’s early plays such as Butley and Otherwise Engaged – from which he confesses detachment here – have already been revived on Broadway and the West End ahead of schedule.

As Coda confirms, however, Gray’s literary reputation no longer rests solely, nor perhaps even mainly, on his plays. Since the 1985 publication of An Unnatural Pursuit, he has produced a series of journals of which Coda is the eighth and last. The first few describe the extraordinary difficulties arising from the production (and sometimes non-production) of his plays. These behind-the-scenes accounts of theatre life, though well written and truthful and very funny, are not particularly original in form. They are given a sort of plot by the progress of Gray’s plays from conception to first night. In these tales Gray defeats or is defeated by a series of villains in the form of actors, actresses, directors, producers, critics, and not least himself. They have the beginning, middle and end of the well-made play.

But as Gray wrote less about the theatre and more about his life, notably in the three-volume Smoking Diaries, so the form of his writing became more complex while affecting to be simple and spontaneous. His topic in these last four diaries, Coda especially, is his endless battle with life. Life in this context means alcohol, smoking, everyday problems, occasional aimlessness, other people, looking after pets, professional disappointments, Guardian readers (or people in the street who might be Guardian readers), the hastening decline of Britain since the 1950s, the romance and awfulness of Abroad today, and anything else that irritates his day including, alas, the looming prospect of death. The style of writing he adopts to cover this wide canvas is commonly described as “stream of consciousness.”

It is in reality not a stream at all but an intricate irrigation network of thought-canals that takes the reader along the exact route that Gray wants and lands him exactly where he intends, which is often the point of departure. Also, it is not so much conscious as highly self-conscious for it describes not merely external events but also the mind’s constantly changing response to them. Since Gray’s mind is wry, clever, witty and inventive, the smallest incident – or no incident at all – can give rise to a series of jostling fantasies, generally putting the fantasist in a jam of some kind.

Thus Gray skirts around a woman beggar he usually tips because his only cash is a £20 note. She shouts at his retreating back that a male beggar, whom Gray has romantically imagined to be her paramour, has just died. Now thoroughly guilty, Gray ducks into Tesco to get some change, but, being guilt-ridden, feels obliged to buy something. All that he can see in his mild panic is cheese which neither he nor Victoria really like. To avoid embarrassment (and to tip the beggar), he returns home laden with unwanted cheeses.

The nearest equivalent to this book I can recall is not another diary or any non-fiction book but Italo Svevo’s meandering modernist classic, Confessions of Zeno. Its central figure is also a man who tries to give up smoking, but one much less formidable than Gray.

As Coda continues, Gray’s mood slowly improves. He enjoys much of his vacation, especially his favourite sport of swimming under water. When he returns to London, he rouses himself to various social duties. He finds great pleasure in his friendships – always a strong theme in Gray’s diaries. There is a fine account of himself and Harold Pinter, both stricken with cancer, both nostalgic for their cricketing days, convulsed with laughter over a long-ago episode in which Pinter single-handedly lost a match for his side. And in one of the most evocative scenes in the book, he and Victoria attend a christening service at a fashionable Catholic church.

Neither Gray nor the other godparents are Catholics or even, we guess, at all spiritually-inclined. The service, though charming, has no religious meaning for them. Gray feels fraudulent promising to ensure his godson’s Catholic upbringing. He had stopped attending his own local Anglican church some years before when the vicar introduced handshakes, cuddles and other irritating novelties. Yet as they leave the church, he and Victoria agree that it was an important event for them and consoling in a way they cannot quite explain.

Perhaps the service reminds Gray of the 1950s Britain he recalls fondly – a society still proud of its past, still connected to the numinous via an earlier Anglicanism, and not yet schooled to stigmatise common notions of decency as “middle class.” Or perhaps Gray was feeling the same obscure sentiment as Larkin’s cyclist in Church Going:

Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Whatever consolation the christening gave, however, it was modest compared to that provided by Gray’s wife, Victoria. I have never read a book that so powerfully conveys the deepening romance of marriage for better or worse. For better, Gray sits in a sheltered spot in their Crete hotel waiting for Victoria to come down: “I always love seeing her come along the path, her hat aslant, her straight, graceful walk…” She “always puts her arms around me shortly after I come to bed, the combination is so soothing, so lulling.” For worse, when she has to shepherd Gray through his medical travails, she “does it all with such consideration, tact, kindness, and grace – such charm and softness and delicacy – all these on my account, for me. And in return she has a bewildered, angry, blustering, ungrateful – yes frequently ungrateful – shameful to write it down, how ungrateful I’ve been…” Victoria says little in the book; she is directly quoted (I think) only once. But her comforting presence is felt throughout. When she does not appear for a few pages, the reader, like Gray himself, begins to worry about her.

For whatever reason, Gray never yields to despair. Thoughts of suicide first become fanciful – jumping off the Clifton suspension bridge – and then peter out. By the end of the book he even feels fondly towards doctors, at least the one who tells him that he may survive his cancer for as long as two years. He and Victoria drive away in a mood of euphoria. Two whole years before them – or 18 months “to avoid disappointment.”

Not quite, alas, though the grinning man with the knife never did get Gray. He died in August of an aneurysm. To judge from Standpoint‘s interview with him a few weeks before it struck, he remained wry, clever, witty and inventive to the end-and brave too.

We should all live such deaths if only we could write such books.